'It feels like indulgence': Labour's city chiefs on leadership race

John Harris finds leading local Labour politicians trying to concentrate on the day job as the leadership election rumbles on

Only 12 days remain until voting closes in the leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. Meanwhile, in places across England and Wales, a very different set of Labour politicians are grappling with the daily pressures of power. Sadiq Khan’s recent win in London sealed Labour’s control of all the major English cities, from Newcastle to Bristol – and the party is also in charge of sizeable places such as Hull, Oxford, Brighton and Southampton. Even in Scotland, Labour still controls Glasgow, and runs Edinburgh in a “capital coalition” with the SNP.

Talking to some of the people concerned, one impression arises time and again: that from the vantage point of town and city halls, the leadership contest looks more about faction fighting than the deep problems lots of Labour people face on a daily basis.

Tangled up in all this is a problem that goes back to the New Labour years, if not before. Labour’s big hitters in city and local government often claim that they’re marginalised by the party’s national politicians. Just about every Labour council has to deal with ongoing austerity, changes to their funding from Whitehall are looming, and many are taking strides towards devolution. Those involved say that people at the top of the party could learn a lot, if only they would give the people who run cities the time of day, and a decent platform.

Some of these people sound exasperated by the Smith/Corbyn battle: others, indeed, simply refuse to talk about it. There again, they surely cannot escape one fact: in electoral terms, what happens to the party in the wake of this latest episode will have big consequences for them, and the places they run.

Leeds: ‘Listen to what we’re saying. We are Labour in power’

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, at the city’s Civic Hall.
Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, at the city’s Civic Hall. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Eight am is an early start for an interview, but it takes just 10 minutes and a solitary cup of coffee for Judith Blake to get going. As she looks back at her party’s drubbing at last year’s general election, her conversational pace picks up. “There was no message of hope,” she says. “What was Labour offering us? What was going to be different? And then there was the austerity-lite message: ‘We’ll cut, but we won’t cut quite as much.’ That went down really badly.”

The arrival of Corbyn, I suggest, might have answered some of those points. “I think it’s answered some for the party membership, and the new people who’ve come in,” she says. “But I still think we’re failing to get our message out into our communities.”

Blake has been the leader of Leeds city council since May last year, with Labour on 63 seats to the Tories’ 19, and the Lib Dems on nine. The financial struggle she and her colleagues are facing is mind-boggling: after cutting about £210m from the council’s budgets since 2010, another £110m are yet to come.

“I’m deeply frustrated about it all,” she says. “Angry. And then you get the deep insult of seeing other places [she means Tory-run councils, mostly in the south] gain funding because of the politics of it. We have to wake up to that, as a country.”

Blake is one of only two women who run big English cities (the other is Labour’s Julie Dore, down the M1 in Sheffield). In last year’s leadership contest, she voted for Yvette Cooper. “I think there’s a real gender issue in the party, I really do,” she says. Her other frustration is just as plainly put. “For many, many years, local politicians in the Labour party have been saying: ‘Listen to what we’re saying. We are Labour in power.’ There’s too much disconnect: too many things being discussed nationally that don’t resonate with people’s lives.”

She and other Labour councillors have agreed to keep their views on the Smith/Corbyn contest to themselves. “There’s a concern about holding everybody together,” she says. “There have been some very extreme views expressed on both sides … and I think there’s a whole issue about how we manage social media, which we haven’t addressed. The situation is so raw in this part of Yorkshire because of [the late MP] Jo Cox. And all of the abuse, particularly that female MPs are getting … this is really, really serious stuff we’re dealing with.”

Milton Keynes: ‘Corbyn says things a Labour person should be saying’

Peter Marland, leader of Milton Keynes council.
Peter Marland, leader of Milton Keynes council. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Five hours later, I arrive in England’s most renowned new town. Close up, politics in Milton Keynes is as fascinating as the cold, clinical cityscape that extends into the distance. Labour and the Tories are tied on 22 seats each, the former is in power thanks to a two-year agreement with the Lib Dems. “In new-build places, which is traditional sort of Blairite territory, we don’t win,” says Peter Marland, the council’s Labour leader. “That’s a massive issue.”

Marland is a 35-year-old native of Lancashire, with a blunt wit and a tendency to use colourful language. “We’ve got a different set of problems from a traditional Labour council here,” he tells me. “We’re fast-growing. We’re creating jobs. Our unemployment is 1.8%.”

But in some neighbourhoods, he says, average life expectancy is 14 years lower than it is 10 minutes down the road. “And like a lot of places, we’re having to deal with cuts,” he says. “But there’s also a massive increase in population as well.” As new arrivals come here to live, the frontier people who pitched up in the 70s and 80s are hitting old age, so spending is being squeezed at both ends of the age range. The number of local dementia diagnoses, Marland says, is going up by 40% annually, and at the same time the council is building 12 new schools a year.

There are profound lessons in all this for Labour, but Marland says he is disappointed by the tenor of the leadership debate. “They’re having a conversation with themselves, aren’t they?” he says. “It’s too mid-20th century.” The actions of anti-Corbyn MPs “have been bizarre, but the actions of some of the people around Corbyn have been equally bizarre”. He says he is set on remaining neutral, though if he was forced to chose, he would probably vote for Smith – a matter, he says, of “electability”.

But he also talks in positive terms about Corbyn. In 2015, Marland was publicly sceptical, claiming he would cost Labour “councillors and credibility”. Now, he talks energetically about local Labour membership having gone up from about 600 to 2,000. “Corbyn is saying some of the things a Labour party person should be saying. Haven’t people been let down by the banks? Haven’t people been let down by the fact that they work fucking hard in Sports Direct, and then don’t have a job?”

Milton Keynes’s next elections are in 2018. Marland talks about staying in power in terms of pushing local stories, but what if it is out of his hands, and down to the party’s fate nationally? He has an answer, but it sounds more like the a matter of hope than certainty. “It needn’t always be about what’s on the six o’clock news,” he says. “If you’re using your local power well, I genuinely think that people will support you.”

Newcastle: ‘The debate has sunk to lows I wouldn’t have expected’

Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes.
Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Nick Forbes has been Labour’s leader in Newcastle since the party snatched back power from the Lib Dems five years ago. He traces Labour’s current national crisis back to the same time: 2010, to be exact, when Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership, without much a sense of the party taking a long, hard look at itself. Instead, he says, “people retreated into a tribal mentality” – something he says applies just as much to the current contest. “It’s all seen through the lens of, ‘Which tribe do you belong to within Labour?’ not, ‘What is the Labour party here for?’

“It all feels like an indulgence,” he says. Like Blake, he won’t be drawn on whether he will vote for Corbyn or Smith, though he uses one of the tropes favoured by people who have had enough of the leadership regime: “My view is that Labour has to be seen as a party of government, not a protest movement.”

If some of Labour’s city leaders are trying to avert their eyes from the party’s national problems, Forbes has no choice but to look at them closely. As well as being the leader of the Labour group of the local government association, he has just been elected as one of two representatives of city and local government on the party’s national executive committee.

“One of the things I’m genuinely worried about is the way the internal debate has sunk to lows that I wouldn’t have expected from any political party, let alone a party that claims to be inclusive and progressive,” he says. “The levels of abuse that I’ve seen friends and colleagues receive has been shocking. Booing Sadiq Khan? I find that absolutely appalling.”

In Newcastle, austerity is grinding on. In many of its neighbourhoods, says Forbes, Ukip has recently started coming second, and he knows why. “The cuts have provided them with a useful narrative against Labour: ‘Why are your streets not being swept? Why can’t you get a house?’ We saw a lot of that in the EU referendum campaign. It was entirely predictable that people used the referendum as a cry of outrage against years of austerity.”

Over the last year, he adds, a new source of hostility to his administration has reared its head – from people within Labour whose interpretation of it as an “anti-austerity party” sees them protesting against Labour councils.

“We get it twice,” he says. “We get it once from the government, and then we get it from certain sections of our own party, campaigning against what we’re having to do.” Not for the first time he sounds frustrated beyond words. “Where is the solidarity with Labour councillors who are having to make the most difficult decisions?”


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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